Category Archives: objections to veganism

On Ex-Vegans

On Variety in Meaning

As the word “vegan” has fully entered mainstream media during the past five years, it has come to have many different meanings for many different people. For some of us, “vegan” means a strong, lifelong, and morally internalized commitment to avoiding the use of animals and animal products as much as is reasonably possible in an extremely speciesist society that uses animal products ubiquitously. For others, “vegan” might mean avoiding animal products only in one’s diet for some period of time ranging from hours (“vegan before 6pm”) to days (“a vegan cleanse”) to a few months or a few years (a vegan fad diet). So, when someone says “I am vegan”, the statement by itself means virtually nothing without adequate definition provided explicitly or in context.

Likewise, the standalone term “animal rights” has become virtually meaningless, unless specifically defined or used in a well-defined context. To get an idea of just how meaningless the term “animal rights” has become, consider a quote in the recent book authored by Professors Gary L. Francione and Robert Garner entitled The Animal Rights Debate. On page 2 of the book, Professor Francione quotes Randy Strauss, President and CEO of Strauss Veal and Lamb International, Inc. a large American meat processor saying, in an effort to increase veal and lamb consumption, “Animal rights are important.” Animal rights has come to meaning everything from the right not to be tortured over and above the routine processing torture endured in a slaughterhouse (traditionally known as “animal welfare”) to the right not to be the property of another. Like the word “vegan”, when such a term has come to mean virtually everything, it has also come to mean virtually nothing, unless adequately defined explicitly or in context.

The point of addressing the variety in meaning of the terms “animal rights” and “vegan” is that when people claim they are no longer vegan or animal rights vegan, it has very little meaning outside of the context in which those terms are used. There may be a lot of “ex-vegans”, but when they were “vegans”, what did that mean? Did they go without animal products for several hours daily (“vegan before 6pm”)? Did they go on a “vegan health diet” for a few weeks, months, or years only as a fad diet right after their Atkins diet? If they were vegan for “animal rights” reasons, what did they mean by that? Are they referring to a concern about animal welfare?

We should be careful about the claims of people who currently call themselves “vegan” and those who call themselves “ex-vegans”.

On Variety in Character

Just as there is extensive variety in the interpretations of the terms “animal rights” and “vegan”, so is there at least as broad a variety in the character and type of people who identify themselves as “animal rights advocates”, “vegans”, and “animal rights vegans”. Indeed, they are likely as varied in character as the public-at-large: from moral exemplars and unsung heroes; to hard workers and good Samaritans; to moral cowards and liars; to attention-seekers and megalomaniacs; to criminals and con artists; and everywhere in between.

So although we might expect to find the majority of people we meet who self-identify as “animal rights vegans” to be good, honest, conscientious people – solid, reliable, and stable people – we should also expect to find a minority who self-identify as such to be flaky, unreliable, dishonest (intellectually or otherwise), and self-absorbed. And so it should not surprise us that some people go “vegan”, but eventually succumb to weak character traits and become “ex-vegans”.

The point here is that ex-vegans are at least partly a reflection of their own character traits at this point in their lives (character can be built and improved upon or diminish throughout life), not a reflection of veganism.

On Variety in Reasons

Although we might expect to find the majority of self-identified “animal rights vegans” to be vegans for good reasons, we should also expect to find a minority who go “vegan” for poor reasons or who lack a sufficient understanding of good reasons to be vegan (and perhaps never were vegans), and then become “ex-vegans”.

The point here is that vegans often become ex-vegans at least partly due to the poverty of their reasons for previously being vegan, which is no reflection of veganism or the many excellent reasons for being vegan.



On Variety in Egos

Regardless of whether the fall from veganism was a matter of poor reasons, a character flaw, or both, if ex-vegans liked a lot of attention when they were “vegan” (whatever that might have meant), chances are great that they’ll like a lot of attention when they go “ex-vegan”, so we shouldn’t be surprised when such people publicly showcase – often quite dramatically – their “justifications” for consuming animal products, often including “confessions” about how awful and intolerable it was to be vegan, how “self-righteous” they were as vegans, and how “relieved” they are to “come back home” to where they belong. As drama queens and kings are common in life generally, so are they common among self-identified “animal rights vegans” and “ex-vegans”.

Again, the negative grandstanding is a reflection of the ex-vegan’s ego and character at this time in life, not a reflection of veganism.

Combining Varieties

When we combine the above varieties in meaning, character, reasons, and egos, as well as the individual anecdotes and tales of drama, we see that the stories of ex-vegans can tell us nothing of significance or of any reliability about veganism, what vegans are like, what being vegan is like, or what good reasons there are for going vegan. For that kind of information, we should consult longtime vegans, unbiased dietetic professionals and vegan nutritional books and materials, abolitionist animal rights books and education materials, and most importantly, commit to veganism and vegan education ourselves.

“Failure to Thrive”

Since animal product consumption and use is virtually always unnecessary for humans and harmful to nonhuman animals, and unnecessary harm is wrong, it’s impossible to justify or even excuse animal product consumption outside of genuine need, such as survival. Because of this, one of the most common excuses for not being vegan or becoming an ex-vegan is that the individual needs animal products either to thrive or for a minimum standard of health.

This excuse plays on the problem of induction in science where we cannot “prove” that X is the case for 100% of a large population, even though all scientific reasoning and evidence to date on less than the entire population has show that X is extraordinarily likely the case for the entire population. Combine such doubt-from-inductive-reasoning with pseudo-science, false or mistaken inferences, anecdotal claims and exaggerations, drama and ego, and you have a recipe for the chaos of anything-goes regarding personal health claims. A recent rebuttal written by a registered dietitian of ex-vegans’ common claim that “vegan diets are not for everyone” displays the typical unscientific nonsense that is put forth as “evidence” by ex-vegans and non-vegans to “support” their claim. It is also worth noting here that the mainstream American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegan diets concludes that well-planned vegan diets are appropriate for people of all ages and all stages of life.

Bad health is unfortunate, but what is much more unfortunate is blaming the bad health on the wrong cause, which is almost certainly the case when people blame it on being vegan rather than looking for the real reason (perhaps unrelated to diet) or the specific nutrients they’re lacking and can obtain from non-animal sources, if only they would conduct proper investigation and research into their particular case.

Failure to Justify

As a way to activate the smoke alarm on the “failure to thrive” health nonsense, ask ex-vegans and non-vegans if they are still vegan except for the particular animal product(s) in the particular quantity that they cannot thrive without. I have asked this question to many who plea “failure to thrive”, and while I have received many different responses (usually some version of avoidance or silence), I have not yet received the response “Yes, I’m vegan except for that.”

If such ex-vegans are serious and genuine about a “failure to thrive”, we should expect them to continue veganism in every other way they are reasonably able, and to continue to fully support the ethical reasons and environmental benefits they previously did. If they do, and they are genuine and sincere about their health issues, and consume limited, prescribed quantities of animal products with the strong reservation that a person who was prescribed a highly undesirable medicine took the medicine, I see no reason why they should announce that they are no longer vegan. Inherent in the concept of veganism – the way genuine abolitionist vegans define it – is reasonableness: Vegans avoid using or consuming animal products to the greatest extent reasonably possible.

While I’m almost certain that, based on significant reading of materials written by experts in nutrition science, absolutely no animal products are necessary for any human to thrive, I could believe in the sincerity of someone who embraces veganism in their lives as much as they believe they possibly can, even if they consume some “limited, prescriptive amount of certain animal products” with the regret and reservation of someone who undergoes a painful treatment to maintain their health. Sadly, I have yet to see one case among ex-vegans that would even remotely fit this description. What we have is not a failure to thrive, but a failure to justify.

Go vegan; learn what you need to learn about nutrition from reliable dietetic professionals; learn the best reasons for being vegan as a minimum standard of ethical behavior (i.e. reasons set forth in the abolitionist approach to animal rights); and stay vegan for life.

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Plant Sentience

Occasionally, vegans encounter the claim that plants are sentient as a kind of objection to going vegan. The uninformed reasoning suggests that since ‘all life’ is sentient, it doesn’t matter what we eat. Vegans have three replies to this: 1) accept the premise that plants are sentient (no matter how offensive to common sense it is) and argue from there; 2) deny that plants are sentient; or 3) reply with both 1) and 2), as I intend to do here.
First Reply: Plants Are Sentient; Therefore, Go Vegan

Let’s put science and common sense on hold for a couple of minutes and assume for argument’s sake that plants are sentient. Not only that, but let’s take it all the way to absurdity and assume that plants are the most sentient life on Earth.Even if it’s true that plants are the most sentient life on Earth, veganism would still be the minimum standard of decency.This follows from the simple fact that animals are reverse protein factories, consuming multiple times the protein in plant food that they produce in protein from their flesh and bodily fluids. Cows consume from 9 to 13 times, and pigs 5 to 7 times, the protein they produce, depending on diet and confinement factors. Chickens consume 2 to 4 times the protein they produce, also depending on diet and confinement factors. So the more we’re concerned about the ‘sentience’ of plants, the less we want to contribute to the staggering inefficiencies of cycling plants through animals, and the more reason we have to go vegan to reduce both animal and plant ‘suffering’.Second Reply: Plants Aren’t Sentient; Therefore, Go Vegan

Let’s now examine the idea that plants are sentient and see why people might believe, contrary to common sense, that plants are sentient, and where they might go wrong.

Equivocation on Sentience

To start with, let’s look at the meaning of the word sentience, because equivocation on the meaning of sentience is often a source of confusion. The definition of sentience in standard usage is an organism’s capacity to experience sensations and emotions. A non-standard definition of sentience, introduced by Robert A. Freitas Jr., and used in the so-called “sentience quotient” (SQ), is the relationship between the estimated information processing rate (measured in bits per second) of each individual processing unit, the weight or size of a single unit, and the total number of processing units. [1]

When a claim is made that plants are ‘sentient’, it is helpful to ask in what sense the claim is being made. Under the SQ definition, plants are ‘sentient’ in that they have an (extremely low) SQ value, but this low SQ value says nothing about sentience under the standard definition. Consciousness sufficient to support experiential sentience almost certainly requires a sufficiently high SQ value in addition to other neuronal properties, neither of which, for example, do computers and plants possess. [2]

Computers have an SQ value that is several orders of magnitude higher than all plants; and animals, including humans, have an SQ value that is up to several orders of magnitude higher than all computers. If computers can’t experience sensations and emotions, then it is almost certainly impossible that plants can, given plants’ extremely low SQ value and a non-neuronal information processing system. As such, it is unreasonable to believe that plants are sentient under the standard (non-SQ) definition.

Plants Are Complex

Another source of confusion regarding plants that leads some people to speculate that they are sentient is that plants are highly evolved and complex organisms that ‘react’ to their environment in surprising ways, especially in larger time scales than we perceive in everyday life. Some plants ‘react’ to insects by releasing deterrent or poisonous chemicals. Some plants release chemicals to deter other plants from growing near them. Some plants are either aggressive or passive in root development depending on whether or not they are around their own species. The Venus Flytrap catches and consumes insects when insects come in contact with tiny hairs that trigger the trap to close.

The confusion arises when the assumption is made that such plant ‘behavior’ is caused by the plants “subjectively experiencing the world through sense data” rather than by insentient hormonal, electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes.

The scientific principle of parsimony strongly suggests that we shouldn’t postulate a complex explanation for phenomena when a simpler explanation will suffice. When autonomic systems in mammals, such as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the reproductive system at the level of the ‘behavior’ of sperm in the presence of an egg appear to be reacting ‘subjectively, consciously and intentionally’ to perpetuate either themselves or their host organism, we don’t assume that these systems are sentient independently of their host organism and acting volitionally. We recognize that there are insentient hormonal, electrical, mechanical, and chemical processes that cause various ‘behaviors’ and events to take place. The development of these insentient processes can be explained by tens and hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection, where hundreds of billions of small, genetic mutations and combinations survived or failed to survive based on how adaptive they were. We should apply the principle of parsimony in our assessment of the causes of plant ‘behavior’ similarly.

Sentience and Neurobiology

Neuroscientists have positively confirmed the areas of our neurology (brain stem, limbic system, etc) that serve to provide sentience and complex emotion. All vertebrates and at least some non-vertebrate animals have these nervous system components, providing strong positive, empirical evidence that such beings are sentient, and that most of them have highly subjective, emotional lives. Plants do not have any of these neurological components.

Back to Common Sense

Organisms such as humans, dogs, chickens, pigs, cows, goats, and sheep look, behave, and move in ways that highly suggest sentience defined as the experience of sensation and emotion. Organisms such as plants look, behave, and stay still (unless the wind is blowing) in ways that highly suggest absolutely no sentience (again, defined as the experience of sensation and emotion). Absent an excellent reason to reject such strong appearances we ought to accept them.

If there is any room for debate and legitimate questions on sentience, it is in the biological continuum between insects and bacteria. Insects such as spiders certainly behave and move in a manner that highly suggests at least some degree of experiential sentience. How much sentience comes in degrees, and how sentient certain organisms like spiders are, are difficult questions. But we know beyond any reasonable doubt that vertebrates are sentient; and we know with a very high degree of confidence that plants are not sentient.


As unconscious entities, plants have no subjective, conscious interest that would be morally relevant to whether we kill them for food or other sufficient reasons (e.g. removing/killing them to build a shelter). We should respect plants in the same sense in which we respect the beauty, complexity, and wonder of insentient nature and natural phenomena in general, which entails reducing our impact on them as much as is reasonable, and not destroying them gratuitously. Our moral obligations regarding plants, however, do not compare in kind to our direct moral obligations to vertebrates, whose sentience and conscious, intentional striving for life and survival is obvious to us. Given this eager striving for life and survival of sentient vertebrates, veganism is the minimum standard of decency.



[1] The SQ spectrum ranges from -70 to about +50 and is computed by the formula SQ=log10(I/M), where I is measured in bits/second and M is the mass of the entire processing unit. An SQ of -70 is computed by dividing one bit by the age of the Universe in seconds (10E18 seconds), and dividing that result by the mass of the Universe (10E52 kg). The upper limit of +50 is imposed by the laws of quantum mechanics (see the link to the article below for more information).

Humans have an SQ of +13. The mass of a human neuron is about 10E-10 kg and one neuron can process 1000-3000 bit/s, resulting in +13. Nonhuman animals, from insects to mammals, are said to range from +9 to +13. Computers range from +6 to +9. Plants are said to range from -2 to +1 (the Venus Fly Trap being +1). It is important to note that these are logarithmic values, so that a difference of 5 points is 5 orders of magnitude (i.e. vastly) different.

It should be noted that SQ does not equal sentience under the standard definition of sentience. It’s possible, and even likely, that certain non-human beings could be far more sensitive to certain pain (especially in certain body parts) than humans are, even though they have a lower average SQ. SQ measures only informational processing efficiency, not pain sensitivity, which is dependent on many more factors. We need a sufficiently high SQ to feel pain, which all vertebrates have, but once that high SQ is reached, the other factors affecting pain sensitivity (such as number and sensitivity of nerve endings in certain body areas, etc) have as much or substantially more influence. In some ways, many non-human beings may be far more sensitive to physical and psychological pain than humans are, and that’s one more thing that makes what we do to sentient non-humans so tragic.

The information on SQ came from this article, and if you are interested, there is much more elaboration on SQ in it. Most of the factual details in the above calculations are not source-referenced in the article; however, I did verify the magnitude of the age of the Universe in seconds (quick calculation based on the estimated age of the Universe being about 13.7 billion years) and the mass of the Universe. I also verified the calculations of stated SQ values given the facts presented.

If anyone has good source-references on other facts (or corrections of such facts) presented here regarding SQ (such as the average mass of a human neuron), I’d be glad to update this brief essay with them.

[2] Plants process information via hormones, not neurons. Computers process information via integrated electronic circuitry in semiconductors. Neither hormones nor integrated circuits are known to be capable of producing a subjective experience of sensations. When computer touch screens are activated, for example, the ‘behavior’ of the computer results from programs being objectively and unconsciously carried out via the integrated circuits on the semiconductor devices. The computer is not ‘subjectively aware’ of anything.

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Veganism as a Minimum Standard of Decency

In discussions with non-vegans – particularly non-vegans on the Internet who are familiar with the assertions of both the vegan animal rights movement and the assertions of the countermovement – the issue of “drawing the line” is often raised as a sort of objection to veganism. While it’s true that vegans avoid a lot of harm, so the argument goes, vegans also indirectly cause a lot of harm: animals are killed by crop harvesters and motor vehicles; natural and artificial pesticides are used in crop production; and often one cannot tell exactly what harm might have been done either to animals directly or to the environment in any given purchase, even at the local natural foods store or farmers’ market. Since vegans haven’t achieved perfection of purity in the art of non-harming and non-violence, it is really only a matter of line-drawing, and until one achieves absolute perfection of purity, one has no business criticizing any other lines that might be drawn. To criticize other lines is to fail to recognize one’s own shortcomings from Platonic perfection, and therefore to fall into – dare we say it – ‘hypocrisy’.

Drawing lines can be difficult in any area of morality, and the more precise the line drawn, often the more difficulties that arise. However, the difficulty of drawing precise lines should not deter us from exploring less precise lines of minimum standards or moral baselines that are (or should be) reasonable for the vast majority of people in society, even if it would require a complete abolition of animal agriculture.

We establish and philosophically defend moral baselines regularly in society in the form of laws regarding such issues as murder, involuntary manslaughter, assault, declarations of war, and speed limits, even though these issues can be just as difficult to draw lines in as animal issues. None of us are “pure” when it comes to protecting humans from cruelty and death either; yet we do draw lines: we aren’t cannibals; and most of us don’t knowingly or happily support human enslavement and slaughter. [1]

We ought also to establish and philosophically defend such baselines regarding animals. Instead, we have a morally relative (and wrong) laissez-faire policy of refusing to even discuss line-drawing regarding animals, despite their overwhelming similarities to us in terms of the morally relevant characteristics: sentience and perceptual intelligence and awareness.

Given the morally relevant similarities and irrelevant differences between humans and other animals, and given that we are likely to find absolute perfection in non-harming far too ascetic or practically impossible in our modern society, veganism is the baseline we ought to promote and live by. Veganism is not the end point or the most we can do; rather, it is the least we can do.

Veganism is essentially refraining from contributing to the exploitation and intentional killing or slaughter of nonhuman beings. Preventing accidental and incidental human fatalities in traffic accidents and police action – even foreseen human deaths – is not required by laws prohibiting slavery and murder. In the same way, preventing accidental and incidental deaths in traffic accidents or harvesting crops – even foreseen deaths – is not required by veganism. In other words, abolitionist animal rights, as currently conceived, and the corresponding moral baseline of veganism are precisely the same in “line-drawing” as laws prohibiting chattel slavery and murder. Laws prohibiting slavery and murder say nothing about preventing motor vehicle injuries and fatalities, or how much cost we should incur in saving an injured child’s life, or “friendly fire” (unintended killing) in a justified war of self-defense. We should certainly take appropriate measures to reduce such deaths as much as possible, but again, veganism is merely a first and minimum standard, not the final or the best standard.

Choosing to consume animal products is a choice to partake in the exploitation and intentional slaughter of sentient beings. Given our wide variety of food choices today, we can easily refuse to partake in such exploitation and slaughter. In many cases, such as this one, drawing lines can be very appropriate and strongly defended, especially when one acknowledges that the line drawn is only a minimum standard of decency, not a maximum standard of purity.


[1] If you live and pay taxes in an industrialized nation with a strong military, such as the United States, you inadvertently and indirectly, and hopefully unwillingly and regrettably, support the slaughter of innocent humans in the form of warfare in other countries (waged primarily for economic reasons; the economic reasons controversially thought to be also ‘national security’ reasons) and arms supply to violent militias, just like vegans inadvertently, unwillingly, and regrettably support the slaughter of innocent nonhumans by living and paying taxes in our animal-exploiting society.

[2] I have edited this essay as of July 9, 2009 to remove two references to Jainism as suggesting an ascetic standard of non-violence. It was my previous understanding that many or most followers of Jainism went to ascetic lengths to avoid harming. I have since learned that this is not the case, and that, although veganism is increasing among followers of the religion, many are not vegans, much less practitioners of an ascetic form of non-violence.

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Do Vegans Violate Animal Rights?

Last week’s essay, ”Contrasting Harms”, was dedicated to the issue of contrasting the harms between vegan and animal agriculture populations, and found that 1) in feeding equal populations, any system of animal agriculture would be significantly more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, and 2) the current animal agriculture system is unimaginably more harmful than a vegan system of agriculture, particularly in the degree of cruelty involved, but also in the number of deaths involved in each system.This essay will directly address the claim of some animal exploitation advocates that since 1) vegans consume grains, soybeans, corn, and other crops, and 2) crop production causes field animals to die, that 3) vegans cause animal deaths, and 4) are therefore violating the rights of animals.

A Comparative Analogy in Human Rights

On American highways and roads we inadvertently, but predictably kill an average of 38,000 human beings annually. This annual average of approximately 38,000 human deaths is as reliable and predictable as the change of seasons. Although we try to keep this number “as low as reasonably possible” through reasonable measures, such as speed limits, seatbelts, air bags, and anti-lock brakes, we do not take stringent measures to eliminate a majority of those 38,000 highway deaths, such as reducing the speed limit from the range of 55 to 75 miles per hour (88 – 120 kph) to the range of 35 to 50 miles per hour (56 – 80 kph) using either mandatory engine governors and/or extremely heavy fines or jail time for even moderate speeding. Are we violating human rights by only taking reasonable instead of stringent measures to prevent these fatal accidents? Most, if not all of us, would say no, there are no human rights violations inherent in our current highway and motor vehicle system, even if we inadvertently, but predictably kill 38,000 random humans annually, and even if we only take reasonable measures instead of stringent measures to prevent these deaths.

Let’s compare the “inadvertent motor vehicle fatalities” situation (“Situation A”) given above with another situation, which we’ll call the “prisoner execution” situation (“Situation B”). Situation B is as follows: To reduce the financial and economic burden of housing prisoners and to rid the country of its most violent sector, both for short-term relief of the violent burden and as a long-term “social improvement” program, we have adopted a policy of executing 38,000 prisoners annually, with the 38,000 to come from the prisoners with the most jail time left to serve. As the prison population declines due to our new execution program, the policy will eventually be tapered down from “38,000 prisoner executions no-matter-what” to executing anyone convicted of a crime normally garnering a sentence of greater than or equal to 4 years in prison. Of course, many of these prisoners will not have murdered anyone and will be receiving a punishment greater than their crime, but we anticipate that it will have positive deterrent and “social improvement” effects on society. Also, there will come a point when we’re killing far less prisoners than 38,000 per year. In addition to that, we kill 38,000 innocent people on our highways annually because of our lax driving restrictions, so why not kill not-as-innocent prisoners?

What’s the problem with Situation B? The problem is most of us would call this prisoner execution policy a very serious human rights violation.

Why do we come to different conclusions about human rights violations in the above two situations? In both situations, we can clearly foresee, with virtually no doubt, that 38,000 humans will be killed as a result of our policy. In both situations, the economic, social, and/or practical gains are significant.

There are at least a few reasons we come to different conclusions with regard to human rights in these two different situations, and they are as follows:

1) In Situation A, the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation B, the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation A, the bad consequence of 38,000 traffic fatalities is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing higher speed limits” is not “to kill more drivers.” By contrast, in Situation B, the bad consequence of 38,000 prisoner fatalities is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “executing prisoners innocent of capital crimes”. Our intent in our policy of “executing prisoners” is “to kill prisoners.” The dead prisoners will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our executions.

3) In Situation A, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of “speed limits greater than 35 to 50 mph on expressways”. The higher speed limits themselves bring about the good consequence. The 38,000 annual traffic fatalities – which we are also taking reasonable measures to prevent from being higher – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation B, the good economic and practical consequence is a direct result of the 38,000 annual prisoner executions. The prisoner executions themselves bring about the good consequences.

A Parallel Comparative Analogy in Animal Rights

Because of our policy of allowing speeds in excess of 35 to 50 mph on our highways, we inadvertently, but predictably kill thousands of humans. In the same way, because of our policy of allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops, we inadvertently, but predictably kill millions of wild field animals.

We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are willing to incur the crop production fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are willing to incur the traffic fatalities on our highways. We, as vegans supporting animal rights, are unwilling to incur intentional slaughterhouse fatalities for the same reasons that a majority of people in our society, as citizens supporting human rights, are unwilling to incur the prisoner execution fatalities. The reasons stated above for the human rights case are the exact same reasons stated below in the animal rights case for easy comparison. We’ll call the inadvertent crop production fatalities “Situation C” and the intentional slaughterhouse fatalities “Situation D”.

1) In Situation C, the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops” is not wrong in itself. By contrast, in Situation D, the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings” is wrong in itself.

2) In Situation C, the bad consequence of millions of crop production fatalities (to feed hundreds of millions of people) is a foreseen side-effect, but not an intended consequence of the policy of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. Our intent in our policy of “allowing crop production using machines” is not “to kill more animals”. By contrast, in Situation D, the bad consequence of billions of animal deaths is a foreseen and intended consequence of the policy of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. Our intent in our policy of “slaughtering animals” is “to kill animals.” The dead animals will not be merely “foreseen side-effects” of our slaughterhouse operations.

3) In Situation C, the good consequence of obtaining economically affordable vegan food for hundreds of millions of people is a direct result of “allowing machines to till soil and harvest crops”. The machines themselves bring about the good consequence. The millions of wild field animal fatalities – which we should also take reasonable measures to reduce – do not themselves bring about the good consequence. By contrast, in Situation D, the (so-called) “good” consequence (and perhaps bad health consequence) of obtaining animal products for consumption is a direct result of “slaughtering nonhuman beings”. The slaughterhouse operation itself brings about the consequences.

The three reasons why Situations A and C are not rights violations can also be applied (and are applied) to rights questions involving self-defense, just war theory, triage, and health care economics. Crop production deaths are merely another paradigm case among many analogous cases where we accept regrettable consequences due to various other factors, such as intent, direct causation, and significantly worse alternative consequences.

It should be clear by now that if animal exploitation advocates are going to accuse vegans of animal rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen crop production deaths, they certainly ought to lead the way in criticizing our society’s human rights “violations” because of inadvertent, but foreseen traffic fatalities. If animal exploitation advocates think vegans should avoid machine-harvested crops, then they should literally ”walk” the talk and avoid modern rapid (and potentially lethal) transportation, not to mention go vegan and grow their own food manually. Of course, if they are reasonable and care about the rights of animals, the only imperative is to be vegan.

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Contrasting Harms: Vegan Agriculture versus Animal Agriculture

In last week’s essay about veganism as the moral baseline, I promised to address the anti-animal rights claim that since 1) vegans consume grains, soybeans, corn, and other crops, and 2) crop production causes field animals to die, that 3) vegans cause animal deaths, and 4) are therefore violating the rights of animals.

Before I address the related issues of the nature of rights (human or nonhuman), prima facie duties, conflicting rights, the principles of least harm and double effect, intended purposes, foreseen consequences, and how these issues interact with crop production deaths, I would like to assess and compare the harms done to animals under vegan and animal systems of agriculture. Because both of these topics (i.e. so-called rights “violations” and respective harms) are somewhat lengthy, I will break the discussion into two essays. This essay, as its title suggests, will discuss respective harms done by vegan versus animal agriculture. The next essay will discuss the so-called rights “violations” which animal exploitation advocates accuse vegans of.

Amusingly (from a human psychology standpoint), animal exploitation advocates kick up much righteous and defensive dust over this rights “violation” claim on Internet forums and elsewhere, as if it provides them with a toehold of moral ground to condemn animal rights advocates and, for themselves, take a permanent moral holiday with respect to our obligations toward animals, particularly our obligation to be vegan. If you pay them enough in public relation consulting fees, the most dishonest exploitation advocates will even go as far as to dig up an old and refuted study about how – “paradoxically” – intentionally killing more animals actually saves more animals, and publish it without publishing the related successful refutation. Indeed, the sleazy front group for the promotion of the special interests of the tobacco, alcohol, meat, dairy, and egg industries, misleadingly named “Center for Consumer Freedom” (“CCF”), posted such an article on their website as recently as April 3, 2007. The article was about a 2003 article entitled “Least Harm” written by Oregon State University animal science professor, Steven Davis, and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, which, as CCF put it “suggests that switching to a food system dominated by beef and dairy would save the lives of 300 million more animals annually than switching to a vegan system.”

Really? A system dominated by “beef and dairy” would save 300 million more lives than a vegan system? How counterintuitive; who would have guessed at such an odd state of affairs?

To be fair, Steven Davis never put it the way CCF did above; and where we properly assume Davis made honest errors (as we will see below), CCF’s failure to mention the well-known rebuttal leaves us wondering not only about CCF’s positive inclination to plainly defraud the public, but also about their stupidity in the attempt.

Least Harm

Steven Davis argued that the number of wild field animals killed in pasture-based animal agriculture is less than the number of wild field animals killed in crop agriculture (due primarily to machine tilling and harvesting); therefore, according to the least harm principle central to most, if not all, ethical thought, we should adopt a diet of ruminant products (e.g. cows, sheep, and dairy) rather than a vegan diet.

Davis’s “Least Harm” article was immediately and successfully refuted in 2003 by Gaverick Matheny at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Matheny’s article, which also appeared in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, challenged Davis’s claims on three counts: “first, Davis makes a mathematical error in using total rather than per capita estimates of animals killed; second, he focuses on the number of animals killed in production and ignores the welfare of these animals; and third, he does not count the number of animals who may be prevented from existing.” Of Matheny’s three objections, the third one is an objection on utilitarian grounds, and therefore, for purposes of discussing deontological rights, the first two of his objections are of primary relevance.

Since Matheny’s article is linked above for those who are interested, I will spare the casual reader the details and references of Matheny’s accurate and successful rebuttal and go on to his conclusion on the first objection: “to obtain the 20 kilograms of protein per year recommended for adults, a vegan-vegetarian would kill 0.3 wild animals annually, a lacto-vegetarian would kill 0.39 wild animals, while a Davis-style omnivore would kill 1.5 wild animals. Thus, correcting for Davis’s math, we see that a vegan-vegetarian population would kill the fewest number of wild animals, followed closely by a lacto-vegetarian population.”

It should be noted here that Matheny’s calculation is referring ONLY to wild animals (i.e. only those animals inadvertently killed in crop land or pasture). A “lacto-vegetarian” population would, as a practical and economic matter, kill significantly more total animals, including ruminants, than a vegan population since 1) vegans don’t kill ruminants, and 2) ruminants, like humans, do not produce milk without being pregnant, which would lead to a massive glut of unusable male calves and “spent” dairy cows which have outlasted their lacto-productivity, a productivity ending several years before their life expectancy terminates. As the old saw goes, there’s a little veal in every glass of milk. The dairy industry is economically dependent on the slaughter industry. So, when we account for the “disposal” of the excess ruminants, we see that a “lacto-vegetarian” population moves away from the vegan population and closer to the Davis-style omnivore population in terms of all animals killed (not just wild field animals), and the vegan population, killing no ruminants, not only kills the fewest wild field animals but stands further alone in killing the fewest total animals.

Matheny’s second objection addresses the differences in welfare and quality of life between crop and ruminant production: “In comparing the harms caused by crop and ruminant production, we should compare the treatment of, say, a wild mouse up until his or her death in a harvester, with that of a grass-fed cow. The wild mouse lives free of confinement and is able to practice natural habits like roaming, breeding, and foraging. In contrast, the grass-fed cow, while able to roam some distance in a fenced pasture, may suffer third degree burns (branding), have holes punched in his ears (tagging), be castrated, have his horns scooped out of his head (dehorning),…” Matheny goes on to describe the cow’s transportation “up to several hundred miles without food, water, or protection from extreme heat or cold; then he is killed in a conventional slaughterhouse. The conditions of slaughterhouses have been described elsewhere (Eisnitz, 1997). Suffice it to say, it is hard to imagine that the pain experienced by a mouse as he or she is killed in a harvester compares to the pain even a grass-fed cow must endure before being killed.” Matheny goes on to properly conclude those principally concerned with the treatment of animals, rather than simply the number of deaths, have more reason to go vegan.

Matheny’s third objection is a utilitarian-based objection which concludes that a vegan population allows more animals with lives worth living to exist than any non-vegan population; a desirable condition, indeed, but not a necessary condition under an animal rights view.

In the end, Matheny correctly concludes that “When we correct for these errors, Davis’s argument makes a strong case for, rather than against, adopting a vegetarian diet: vegetarianism kills fewer animals, involves better treatment of animals, and likely allows a greater number of animals with lives worth living to exist.”

Case closed.

Other Considerations

What the Davis article and Matheny refutation does not address is the more than 10 billion land animals we actually slaughter for food annually, of which more than 9 billion are chickens, and which works out to about 33.3 animals per non-vegan annually, [1] PLUS the animals killed by harvesters to feed both humans and “food” animals, which we can estimate at least another 1.5 animals per non-vegan annually, for a total of at least 34.8 animals per non-vegan annually, compared to the estimated 0.3 of an animal per vegan annually. By going vegan, we avoid ALL (100%) of the animals intentionally slaughtered to feed ourselves and over 99% of all animals killed, intentionally or as a regrettable and unintended side-effect.

Need we say more about contrasting the harms of vegan versus animal agriculture? No, it is very clear that the contrast in harms is an extremely stark one, with the actual deaths currently caused by non-vegans quantitatively greater by 116 times the number of deaths caused by vegans, [2] and the harms caused by non-vegans in terms of welfare and quality of life qualitatively unimaginably greater than the harms caused by vegans.

The next essay will address how this information and other considerations, such as intentional acts and foreseen consequences, relate to animal rights and veganism as a moral baseline.


Eisnitz, G. A., Slaughterhouse (Prometheus Books, New York, 1997)


[1] 10 billion animals divided by the population of American non-vegans estimated at 300 million (these statistics are fairly easy to obtain, verify, or compile by searching on the Internet)

[2] Deaths caused annually per person: 34.8 for non-vegans divided by 0.3 for vegans.

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Animal Rights, Science, and Religion

The five major religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu/Brahmanism, Islam, and Judaism) all have a heavy influence on the thought, especially the moral thought, of people throughout the world, even in highly educated countries, and even at a time when science has knocked humankind off our imagined pedestal of being at the center of the universe with the sun and stars revolving around us, and utterly separate from and clearly above nature and other species.Science: An Astronomical Perspective of Our Universe

We now know that not only is our Solar System heliocentric rather than geocentric, but that our Sun is just one very typical, garden-variety star of billions of stars within our own galaxy, and that our galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies within the visible universe (visible using the Hubble Space Telescope), each galaxy containing billions of stars themselves. Many of the galaxies in our Universe seen through the Hubble are over a billion light-years away (for perspective, our Sun is 8 light-seconds, or about 90 million miles away; one single light-year is about 3.9 million times that distance). The Universe is vast, and we are most likely not at the center of it. From this perspective, we have significantly more in common with gnats, dust mites, and amoebas than we might have otherwise thought and mammals are our brothers and sisters on this miniscule home we call Earth.

Science: An Astronomical Perspective of Time

The Universe is estimated to be approximately 14 billion years old. Many galaxies, including our Milky Way galaxy, formed about 13 billion years ago. Our Solar System formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The Cambrian explosion of diversity of life on Earth occurred about 550 million years ago. The first humans appeared about 350,000 years ago. If we put the 14 billion year age of the Universe on a 24 hour scale for perspective, then Earth formed almost 8 hours ago and the first humans appeared on Earth a little over 2 seconds ago, at 11:59:58pm. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the Universe. Again, we have much in common with beings who we consider having very short, relatively insignificant lives.

Science: Down to Earth

The theory of evolution is so foundational to our current knowledge of living organisms, including ourselves, that biology and modern medicine would not make sense today without it. Established scientific theories like evolution and relativity are not “just theories” randomly tossed onto the wall to see if they stick. On the contrary, established scientific theories provide the core principles of a scientific body of knowledge which have been confirmed thousands of times by empirical studies performed by independent scientists attempting to falsify them. If evidence from empirical studies counter any of a given theory’s principles, the theory is appropriately replaced in part or in whole. We know from evolution and modern biology that we are on an overlapping continuum of sentience with all other living organisms, with many more similarities than differences. Indeed, there are many nonhumans, some of whom we kill by the billions annually for trivial preferences, who are smarter, more sentient, and more self-aware than many humans. For example, normal pigs, chickens, dogs, and “cattle” are far more self-aware and intelligent than any infant or severely mentally disabled human. Humans are 2 – 4 years old before they can compare in self-awareness to so-called “food” animals. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the biosphere, at least not one untainted by characteristics which overlap in highly relevant ways (morally speaking) with many other species. Indeed, the difference in characteristics between us and other species, like Darwin said, is one of degree, not kind, and we can verify that the degree is significantly overlapping, even in that sacred characteristic which generates so many anthropocentric claims of superiority: intelligence, which by itself, is really little more than a handy tool that can be used for good or evil.

Science: Putting Us in Our Place

It is true that none of the science above disproves claims about the existence of God, the Absolute, Brahma, or Ultimate Reality. In fact, science, given its epistemological standards of empirical verification of logical theory and its insistence on scientific claims being falsifiable, has nothing to say about such matters. Science also has nothing to say about morality and ethics and what we ought to value in our life. But our newly and more properly conceived place in the Universe given to us by science over the past 150 years ought to offer us a different perspective about morality, especially as it relates to nonhuman animals. Apparently, God has had little or no effect on our folly and hubris in relation to Earth and other species, which we are continually polluting and abusing, respectively. Perhaps science can provide the information and perspective, and with appropriate maturity and judgment, we can recognize that we are not the center of the Universe; that we are not different from many other species on Earth in any morally relevant way which would justify our use and abuse of them; and that if we continue on our self-destructive trend, Earth will take care of the problem by becoming so sick and hot that we cannot survive here.

Religion: Monotheism

Let’s very briefly turn to the monotheistic religions of the Middle East and ask a few questions. If God is beneficent, would God want us, as individuals, to personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of 10 billion of animals annually in the United States (50 billion worldwide)? Perhaps we can get a hint from Genesis before The Fall of Man: “God said: ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food’. And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” Given these verses in Genesis, is not breeding, torturing, and slaughtering 10 billion animals annually the epitome of The Fall? How many animals do we need to breed, torture, and slaughter annually before we hit the rock bottom of The Fall? Wouldn’t a beneficent God want us to treat animals as we would like to be treated by God, perhaps with kindness instead of ruthless cruelty? Wouldn’t a beneficent God be utterly disgusted and revolted by our carelessness, ignorance, indifference, cruelty, greed, and gluttony? I think so.

Religion: Mindfulness and Compassion

For those who look to Eastern religions for moral guidance and inspiration, are we really mindful, compassionate, and observing the skillful means of nonharming when we personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of animals, including when those animals and their bodily fluids are labeled with marketing slogans like “certified humane”, “free range” or “cage-free”? Is slaughter ever humane or compassionate? How much do we really know about these so-called “humane” animal products? Is ignorance preferable? Would we like to be born as the future victim of someone’s oral cavity? Does “cutthroat compassion” make any sense? We cannot eat animal products with both mindfulness and compassion operating concurrently. If we are consuming animal products “mindfully,” we cannot be also consuming them compassionately, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness; and if we are consuming animal products “compassionately,” we cannot be mindful of the reality of that being’s slaughter, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness and compassion. Perhaps all we are mindful of when consuming animal products is our attachment to trivial preferences and unskillful actions.

Coming Up: Secular Moral Philosophy

For agnostics, including many scientists, the next blog entry or two will address secular moral philosophy and moral psychology. We’ll see that regardless of our religion or lack thereof, there are always much more compelling reasons to embrace animal rights and veganism than to continue onward in the glaring moral blind spot which has defined and grossly distorted our moral obligations to animals, especially in light of modern knowledge of nutrition and veganism.

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